Accompanying the stirrings of spring are the stirrings of what life will become after the COVID-19 crisis. To be honest, nobody really knows. But then, nobody ever really knew. We often like to think that we are entirely in control of our lives, our surroundings, our future. But if nothing else, the virus has taught us that we cannot control everything around us. However, we can take responsibility for our inner attitude towards everything from adversity to discomfort to death, and for our own outer actions in how we choose to live our lives.
Perhaps now is a good time to see what we might learn from Roberto Assagioli’s experience after he was released from prison on September 19, 1940. Imprisoned for praying for peace and inviting others to join him, along with “other international crimes,” Assagioli spent a month in Regina Coeli prison in Rome. Notes that he wrote about his time in prison can be read in the book Freedom in Jail. In a 1965 interview with Julie Medlock, Assagioli said:
“One of my most gratifying experiences has been the month I spent in jail in 1940. In order that I should not have a bad influence on other prisoners I was put in a solitary cell. This greatly pleased me because the privacy offered me a welcome opportunity for a spiritual retreat. Such pauses or interludes from the wear and tear of modern life are very helpful and I greatly recommend them (although not necessarily in prison!).
I made use of the seclusion for performing a series of exercises of meditation, contemplation, etc. Through them I attained new heights and intensity of spiritual realization.”
While it’s clear that Assagioli experienced freedom during his time in prison, we can also see that he lived this inner freedom, not only soon after his release but during his entire lifetime.
Freedom Under Surveillance
After Assagioli’s release from jail, his physical freedom was curtailed for years. Upon leaving the prison, he was officially declared “a person dangerous to the security of the State.” Consequently, he was held under house arrest and kept under surveillance by the fascist government for the next two years. This meant that he needed police authorization to travel any distances from his home and was forbidden to leave his house between sunset and sunrise. (These restrictions, oddly enough, might feel slightly familiar to us by now!)
While his family was living in Capolona in Tuscany, Assagioli was forced to remain in Rome and spent the first months after his release in a pensione run by Nina Onatzky, the wife of Evhen Onatsky who in 1943 was also thrown into Regina Coeli prison (but that’s another story…). Meanwhile, Assagioli and his wife Nella wrote a letter to Mussolini, asking that Assagioli’s political status be reviewed and he be set free. In this letter, dated November 19, 1940, the Assagiolis wrote:
“The undersigned reaffirms that he never was a ‘pacifist’, because, with his understanding as a psychologist and psychiatrist of human nature, he has never had the illusion that peace can be founded on external means and with legal treaties as demanded and attempted by pacifists.”
In fact, this statement almost verbatim appears years later in his “Introduction to the Will Project”, at the end of his seminal book The Act of Will. He further explains: “The effective means to change men’s inner attitude, both individual and collective, is the constant application of good will.”
Freedom in Hiding
Nearly six months after leaving prison, Assagioli was officially released from police surveillance and was able to return home to Capolona. However, the fascist police continued to keep an eye on him. Then in 1943, when the Nazi’s came into power in Italy, things became substantially worse. Assagioli and his family had to flee their home and hide in the Apennine mountains north of Arezzo.
Until the end of the war, they lived underground in drafty old barns and stables outside of remote mountain villages. They managed to survive leaky roofs in the winter and fight off swarms of mosquitoes in the summer. Together they shared their food and company with English and American soldiers who had escaped concentration camps, an English parachutist, British Indian soldiers, Austrian Jews, and Italian partisans. Twice they were nearly caught. Their home at Capolona was ransacked and blown up with dynamite and their home Villa Serena was ransacked and damaged by cannon fire. But like so many allied prisoners and Jews during this time in Italy, they were protected and fed by the local peasant families (like those pictured above) who risked violence and death.
Freedom under Liberation
Upon Italy’s liberation, Assagioli wrote humorously about this time in hiding in his “Letter to Friends” dated September 1944. This letter was translated in full for the first time in Freedom in Jail.
Assagioli’s story of inner freedom continued after the end of World War II. Due to the poor living conditions they had to endure while in hiding, his son Ilario, who was already suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, became even weaker. After the war, medicines and other cures such as those found at sanatoriums were difficult to come by, and on November 6, 1951, Ilario died.
A few days after his son’s death, Assagioli said:
“His eyes now see quite a different sun.”
Lessons We Might Learn for Post COVID-19
What might we learn from Assagioli’s story of freedom? Once he left prison, things seemed to go from bad to worse. His two homes were destroyed, his papers and libraries ransacked, he and his family had to go and live in cowsheds to hide from a regime that wanted to kill him, his son Ilario became weaker and then died.
But throughout it all, Assagioli retained the inner freedom he experienced while in prison. Perhaps, his time in prison was the best preparation for the sufferings that were to come. Years later, while lecturing in Rome, Assagioli said that it is a mistake “to think that suffering can be eliminated from life.” Only by our wiliness to accept and understand suffering can we redeem it and make it a source of joy.
We might want to consider our lockdown as a gift – the time and space we need to best prepare for what is to come. A time to learn how to accept, be patient, deliberate, choose, and become inwardly free – so that we might be best prepared to redeem whatever suffering will inevitably come and transform it into the smiling wisdom of joy.
Many thanks to Casa Assagioli, the Istituto di Psicosintesi Firenze, and especially Lucia Bassignana, Paola Marinelli, and Susan J. Allen for their efforts in producing the audio files of Freedom in Jail.
Author’s Note: This account of Assagioli’s time after his release from prison comes in part from “Le carte della Polizia Politica fascista” by Laura Ferrea, published in: Roberto Assagioli, Libertà in prigione. A cura di Catherine Ann Lombard, Firenze, Italia: Istituto di Psicosintesi, 2018, pp. 89-104. All translations from Italian into English are mine.